BALTIMORE -- It was only a few minutes after Triple Crown hopes had evaporated, barely, for the 33rd straight year, and Graham Motion was leaning on the rail leading up to the jockeys' room at Pimlico Race Course, an otherwise indistinct spot he knows all so well from two decades of running horses on the Maryland circuit.
Disappointment, fresh, was "a bitter pill," said Motion, who had just watched Animal Kingdom, the Kentucky Derby winner he trains for Team Valor International, come within a half-length of running down Shackleford in a dramatic 136th running of the Preakness.
With John Velazquez aboard, Animal Kingdom, the 2-1 Preakness favorite off his 2¾-length Derby upset at 20-1, launched a searing rally down the center of the Pimlico track after having only one horse beaten for much of the 1 3/16-mile journey. By any account, it was a courageous effort from the runner-up, and Motion, whose career had been perpetually praised and profiled for the last two weeks in the spectacular Derby wake, was somewhat shaken, but quite composed nonetheless.
"I don't think there was anything John could've done different," said Motion, who had just walked away from most of his extended family, including his parents from England, after watching the race from the grandstand seats overlooking the Pimlico finish line. "I'm disappointed, of course, but the colt ran huge. I'm very proud of him. He just came so close. It's a tough pill to swallow when they come as close as he did."
Animal Kingdom broke somewhat sluggishly from post 11 in the 14-horse field, and unlike in the Derby, when he showed tractable speed, he lagged well behind down the backstretch. His hand forced once the colt began to gain momentum and pass tiring horses, Velazquez guided Animal Kingdom widest of all once the stretch run was set, and the lost ground might well have cost him in the end.
Velazquez said the colt recoiled a bit from the dirt hitting him in the face and chest during the early stages and might have momentarily lost the focus required to stay closer.
"He didn't leave the gate very well today," Velazquez said. "The dirt hit him, he reacted, and he backed up a little. I had to lose a little ground. I had to bide my time from the half-mile pole to the quarter pole to see where to go. By the quarter pole, I thought I had a chance. It was a little too much to make up."
For the third straight year since Big Brown failed to complete the Triple Crown when he lost the 2008 Belmont Stakes, racing again lacks even the chance of having its first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. So while the connections of Shackleford were elated with the way the colt held on to win the second jewel of the Triple Crown – "This is one of the most exciting races in our sport to win, unbelievable," said winning trainer Dale Romans -- evening in Baltimore fell less happily for Motion.
"I'm kind of speechless, really," he said. "This is a tough experience."